Bush Team on Defensive Over al-Qaeda Leak
of the greatest coups in Washington's nearly three-year war against
al-Qaeda has suddenly turned sour with reports the White House prematurely
exposed the identity of a key source whose contacts and communication
with the terrorist group's operational masterminds had yet to be
source, 25-year-old computer wizard Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, had
been cooperating with Pakistani police and the U.S. Central Intelligence
Agency (CIA) since he was quietly detained in Lahore on July 12,
until the New York Times published his name last Monday after
receiving a "background" briefing by the White House.
Bush administration, which had elevated the terror-warning level
in three U.S. states on the basis of information acquired from Khan,
set up the briefing to dispel public skepticism about the terrorism
threat, particularly after it was disclosed that much of the information
on which it was based was several years old.
and Pakistani intelligence agencies were reportedly furious with
the leak, which forced UK police to hurriedly round up 13 al-Qaeda
suspects who are alleged to have been in email communication with
Khan. Five others who were sought by MI5 reportedly escaped capture,
and there is some question that the British had gathered enough
evidence to persuade a judge to keep the 13 detainees in custody,
according to published reports.
outing of Khan, probably the most important asset the U.S. has ever
had inside al-Qaeda, is a huge disaster and a setback to attempts
to finish off the top leadership of al-Qaeda," according to
Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan,
whose Web log (or "blog") "Informed
Comment" is widely read in Washington.
of those arrested by the British, Abu Issa al Hindi and Babar Ahmed,
however, are wanted by the United States. Ahmed reportedly obtained
detailed information about the movements of a U.S. Navy aircraft
carrier, the Constellation, in 2001, six months after the
al-Qaeda suicide attack on the USS Cole off Yemen.
was reportedly sent to the United States at around the same time
to carry out surveillance on key U.S.-based financial institutions
in New York, Newark, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., which were
named as likely possible targets when the terror alert was elevated
eight days ago.
tidbits are among what U.S. officials have called a "treasure
trove" of information found on computers owned by Khan, who
apparently agreed to continue sending and receiving encrypted messages
to his al-Qaeda contacts after his arrest in order to help catch
reportedly found that one of the files on Hamdi's computer had been
opened as recently as January, suggesting that an attack on one
or more of the financial targets which included the World
Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington
may have been in an operational phase, justifying a heightened alert.
was the skepticism that greeted the alert, particularly after other
leaks confirmed the underlying evidence was at least three years
old, that spurred the White House to provide more information to
reporters, including Khan's name.
national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, confirmed Sunday briefing
officials had given Khan's name to the Times but insisted
he was identified "on background," an assertion that caused
consternation among experienced journalists here, who know that
everything said by officials "on background" can be quoted
so long as the name of the briefing officials is not disclosed.
problem," she told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, "is that when you're
trying to strike a balance between giving enough information to
the public so that they know that you're dealing with a specific,
credible, different kind of threat than you've dealt with in the
past, you're always weighing that against ... operational considerations.
We think for the most part, we've struck a balance, but it's indeed
a very difficult balance to strike."
British Home Secretary David Blunkett suggested the balance had
been anything but well struck. In an opinion piece published Sunday,
he was openly contemptuous of the White House's management of the
information. "In the United States there is often high-profile
commentary followed, as in the current case, by detailed scrutiny,
with the potential risk of ridicule," Blunkett wrote in The
it really the job of a senior cabinet minister in charge of counter-terrorism
to feed the media? To increase concern? Of course not. This is arrant
officials, who have been under enormous pressure from Washington,
also expressed frustration. "This is a network that we are
trying to break," said Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayyat,
who denied the information had been leaked from Pakistan. "It
is in the process of being dismantled, [but] the network is still
staunchly loyal Republicans said the White House had made a serious
mistake. "In this situation, in my view, they should have kept
their mouth shut and just said, 'We have information, trust us,'"
said Virginia Senator George Allen.
observers charged that the public skepticism surrounding the administration's
conduct in the "war against terrorism" had been largely
induced by the government itself.
to one recent poll, nearly 40 percent of the public believes the
White House is manipulating the threat level for political reasons,
a notion that gained more support when the Department of Homeland
Security raised the threat level to "orange" or "high"
on the morning after Bush's Democratic foe, John Kerry, accepted
the presidential nomination, concluding a four-day party convention.
the administration announced the arrest in Pakistan of a senior
al-Qaeda operative, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, wanted for organizing
the 1998 suicide bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar
es Salaam, on the third day of the Democratic convention, and three
weeks after the The New Republic weekly quoted Pakistani
intelligence officials as saying the White House had asked them
to announce the arrest or killing of any "high-value [al-Qaeda]
target" any time between July 26 and 28, the first three days
of the Democratic Convention.
the time, former CIA officer Robert Baer said the announcement made
"no sense." "To keep these guys off-balance, a lot
of this stuff should be kept in secret. You get no benefit from
announcing an arrest like this."
exposing the only deep mole we've ever had within al-Qaeda, it ruined
the chance to capture dozens if not hundreds more," a former
Justice Department prosecutor, John Loftus, told Fox News on Saturday.
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2004 Inter Press Service